Great Britain

It’s important for workers to carve out space in the day for exercise and self-care

“I’M hoping the Congress you preside over will feature some kind of parkrun fringe,” tweeted one friend following my election as president of the Scottish Trade Union Congress.   

As president I would be chairing the 2021 congress of the STUC — the annual gathering of the trade union movement where hundreds of delegates from Scotland’s trade unions come together to debate issues affecting workplaces, workers and their families. 

As a big fan of parkrun — the free weekly timed 5km events held in parks in Scotland and worldwide — perhaps it was predictable that I would try to shoehorn a run onto the conference agenda.    

But given lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic have thwarted my plans to coax delegates out of the conference hall for a run, walk or cycle along Dundee’s waterfront, I’m determined that this year’s virtual Congress will promote worker wellbeing and the benefits of getting outside for exercise.

With home-working blurring work-life balance, work intensification going through the roof, and normal social interaction limited by the pandemic, it’s never been more important to be making time to care for our mental and physical wellbeing.    

Trade unionists are skilled at supporting their members, fighting against injustice in the workplace, campaigning for a better deal; but do we always take care of ourselves?    

We march in solidarity, chant at demos, and patrol our picket lines.  

Yet our conferences tend to be marathon-length meetings in dark rooms, punctuated with coffee or smoking breaks; to later retire to fringe meetings, receptions and bars.   

As a movement, unions rarely encourage members and activists to socialise outdoors, or partake in healthier pursuits.  

This year’s STUC Congress is set to change all that as we share some experiences of trade unionists who are getting outside, enjoying the fresh air, and will encourage our comrades to do likewise.  

As we gather virtually behind our Zoom screens, STUC will be urging delegates to plan to head outdoors.   

Our “workers taking care” film features a number of trade union representatives explaining how exercise has helped them during lockdown.  

I hope these experiences will inspire others to take exercise or get active in whatever way works for them. 

Perhaps to walk to green spaces, to jog, run, cycle, or even to emulate one of our braver activists and her Loch Lomond wild water swimming.    

Carving out space in the day for exercise and self-care is important.  

As trade unionists it’s vital that we ensure all workers have the time, ability, resources, and the space to be able to do so.  

For starters this means reducing the long working hours culture, ensuring shift patterns and lunch breaks support wellbeing, and that workplaces have the facilities — showers, changing rooms and bike storage, for example — to support a healthier lifestyle. 

It means taking a shorter working week more seriously. It’s equally important that we ensure we have safe open spaces on hand to enjoy, free from abuse or harassment.

Taking care of your physical health also pays dividends for your mental health too, and I  know trade unionists who exercise all emphasise that mental wellbeing has been their priority over the past year.  

I’ve been running for over 20 years, and it’s been my saviour during some challenging times at work and personally, as well as enabling me to make some great friends.  

Running has given me routine, discipline, self-respect and confidence.   

As US distance runner Kara Goucher has said: “Running allows me to set my mind free.  Nothing seems impossible. Nothing unattainable.”  

Indeed, however large or small your exercise goals, being active brings a sense of achievement.   

All of this comes in handy for the struggles we face as trade unionists, and has helped through the isolation and uncertainty of lockdown.  

I hope the different perspectives of our “active” trade union reps from all different walks of life will help to inspire others in the trade union movement to step outside and get moving.  

And when we’re through this pandemic, maybe we will have that conference parkrun fringe session and the exhilaration and community of exercising outdoors together.

Mary Senior is the University and College Union’s Scotland official, this year’s STUC president, and a regular parkrunner.

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